Do I Derive Pleasure from the Death of the Wicked

Dr. Paul Wojda, Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, authored today’s Lenten Reflection for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality’s Seasonal reflections.  Prompted by today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Ezekiel (18:21-28), it ought to make us a bit uncomfortable about how we respond to those we villify.  Rather than summarize it, I include it in full for your reflection.

“Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?”

Charles Dickens may well have had these lines from Ezekiel in mind when he was writing his now famous conversion narrative, A Christmas Carol (1843). At the final and decisive visit of the third spirit (“The Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come”), the misanthropic Scrooge is given a vision of his own death, or rather a vision of some reactions to his death, none of them cheering. Three businessmen bemusedly remark that Scrooge’s funeral will certainly not be very well attended. Indeed, one of them only plans on going if a meal will be served. Scrooge’s own housekeeper is greedily pawning, to a sketchy character named “Old Joe,” the household goods she lifted. And a poor couple on the miser’s hook rejoice: they will now have a bit more time to repay their debt.

We all know what happens next. But let’s be honest, would any of us have shed a tear if, instead of his remarkable turnabout and subsequent generosity, especially where Tiny Tim is concerned, old Ebeneezer died in his sleep that Christmas Eve?

I suspect not. I know I wouldn’t have. On the contrary, wouldn’t we, don’t we, shouldn’t we actually rejoice? Serves him right. Bad guy gets it in the end. What goes around comes around. Just deserts. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Praise the Lord. Right? Wrong.

If Dickens’ classic story is a morality tale, then it challenges us to take the measure, not so much of Scrooge’s mercy, but of our own. How narrow and shriveled are ourhearts? If we rejoice that Scrooge found new life–that what he thought was a fateful choice to reject love was in fact not irrevocable–then should we not also lament the possibility that he might have missed the opportunity?

Should we not likewise lament our own failures to grasp new life, resurrection, when it extends its hands to us? By all means, let us lament together. That is Lent. Let us begin where Jesus himself proposes in today’s Gospel: by disowning the pleasures we take in our many angers, grudges, and resentments.

As Marley might say, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

You can read all of the Lenten Reflections here.

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“Our” Father

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in prayer.  After telling them not to “babble like the pagans,” he teaches them the prayer we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer.

Every time we go to Mass, and, for many of us, at other times a well, we recite this prayer that Jesus taught us.  It is a prayer we could spend a lifetime meditating on.  Teresa of Avila used to tell her sisters they should recite it prayerfully every day, meditating on each line of the prayer.

Consider just the opening two lines of that prayer: “Our Father”

When we say those words – Our Father – we are acknowledging a particular relationship not only with God but with each other.  Yes, Jesus taught us that God is Father, and for many of us that is a powerful image – the image of God as Father.  And I think we tend to focus on that part of the first line of the prayer, on what it says about our relationship with God.

But we don’t say simply Father, or Dear Father, or My Father.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father.”  And by those words we acknowledge not only a filial relationship with God, but a relationship with each other.  We acknowledge that we are brother and sister.  We acknowledge that we stand as part of a family with each other – as part of a loving and united community with God.

I was so powerfully struck by this reality one morning when I was ending a prayer period with this prayer that I couldn’t even get past the first line.  I stopped dead in my tracks with the enormity of what I was praying.

Imagine a world in which we all took the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer seriously!

The Criteria For Judgment

The University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality posts daily reflections during Lent.  I authored today’s reflection, focusing on today’s Gospel from Matthew.  Here is what I wrote:

Today’s Gospel is the familiar passage from Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus explains to his followers the basis upon which the Son of Man will separate those who stand before him on the day of judgment.  The explanation given to those he will welcome into his kingdom is that when he was hunger they fed him; thirsty, they gave him something to drink; a stranger, they welcomed him; naked, they gave him clothing; sick, they took care of him; in prison, they visited him.  Of course, his hearers remember no such good deeds done for Christ, prompting his further explanation: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The theologian Michael Himes makes much of this passage, writing

“the criterion of judgment has nothing to do with any explicitly religious action.  The criterion is not whether we were baptized, or prayed, or read Scripture, or received the Eucharist, or believed the correct doctrines, or belonged to the church.  Not one of these – however important they may be – is raised as the principle of judgment.  Only one criterion is given: Did you love your brothers and sister?”

Reflecting on this Gospel passage invites us to reflect on the question: Do we see the face of Christ when we look at our brothers and sisters?  And I don’t mean the brothers and sisters who look like us.  Do we see the face of Christ….

…in the prisoner on death row

…in the homeless beggar on the street

…in those addicted to drugs or alcohol

…in those whose politics we find objectionable

…in those who don’t’ share our religious beliefs

…in those whose sexual orientation we don’t understand.

We want to be able to see the face of Christ in every single person we encounter because He is right there in every single person, however misleadingly he is disguised by characteristics that make him look different from us.  And seeing others as Christ, we want to respond to them in love and compassion, doing what we can to meet their needs.

Lent offers us a wonderful opportunity to practice that recognition and response.

Note: You can read all of the posted reflections here.

Prayer for Our Leaders

I got an e-mail from my friend Gerry this morning, reminding me of this wonderful prayer “For One Who Holds Power” by John O’Donohue.  It is a good prayer for our times.

May the gift of leadership awaken in you as a vocation,
Keep you mindful of the providence that calls you to
serve.

As high over the mountains the eagle spreads its wings,
May your perspective be larger than the view from the foothills.

When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,
May your imagination continue to evoke horizons.

When thirst burns in times of drought,
May you be blessed to find the wells.

May you have the wisdom to read time clearly
And know when the seed of   change will flourish.

In your heart may there be a sanctuary
For the stillness where clarity is born.

May your work be infused with passion and creativity
And have the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge.

May your soul find the graciousness
To rise above the fester of small mediocrities.

May your power never become a shell
Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.

May you welcome your own vulnerability
As the ground where healing and truth join.

May integrity of soul be your first ideal.
The source that will guide and bless your work.

Walking With Jesus During Lent

Tonight was the opening session of the Lenten Ignatian Retreat at St. Thomas More.  After this initial large group meeting, small retreat groups will meet weekly, and participants will pray each day with materials we provide to them that are based on Weeks 2 and 3 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

I gave the opening talk this evening to introduce the retreat.  I spoke first about a central characteristic of Ignatian Spirituality – one that underlies the approach of the Spiritual Exercises – and that is, the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus.  I then offered a general sense of the overall flow of the retreat, highlighting in particular the idea of our call to labor with Christ on behalf of building God’s kingdom.

You can access a recording of the session here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for just under 30:00 minutes.)

Unclean

Today’s first Mass reading contains the instructions from Leviticus for dealing with people suffering from leprosy.  Such persons were to be declared unclean, forced to live apart from the community.

What doubtless was intended as merely a way to quarantine persons with a communicable illness from those who were healthy, became something else.  Rather than a temporary quarantine while contagious, sufferers were permanently isolated from community.  Worse, physical illness came to be seen as moral illness.  (Interestingly, if you look up synonyms for unclean, the second one to appear is “morally wrong.”)

Jesus acts differently.  In today’s Gospel, when approached by a leper, Jesus touches him, and heals him from his illness.  He doesn’t just heal him from his physical malady, his touch removes the isolation, the separation.

Who are we like today.   We may not point our fingers and shout “unclean,” but think of how many people assume material poverty to be a sign of moral failing.

Are we like those who isolated the lepers – if not physically isolating certain people and groups – seeing them as different and removed from us?  Or like Jesus, reaching out out hands in healing and love?

 

You Are Mine

Perhaps it was a reaction to today’s Mass readings, in the second of which Paul speaks of making himself a “slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.”  Or perhaps to Fr. R.J.’s homily at St. Thomas More Church this morning, which emphasized the universal call to proclaim the Gospel with our lives.  Doubtless it was some combination of both that prompted a different hearing of the song we sang during the offertory.

The song is one I have known for years, David Hass’ You are Mine.  The song is Jesus’ words to us, a promise that he is near, that he will always love us, that he will bring us home.  I recognize many are unhappy with any songs in which we sing the words of God/Christ, but I nonetheless have a fondness for it.

But as I heard the words this morning, I heard them as a call for our own behavior.  What would the world look like if I – if all of us who call ourselves Christians – truly see ourselves as…

…hope for the hopeless,
…eyes for all who long to see,
…strength for all the despairing,
…healing for the ones who dwell in shame,

We are not God.  But we can do much to ease the suffering of others, to lift them from fear, to be their light.  And we are called to do so.